What’s meant by the term “gothic”?: A rant in response

Gothic kids

Taken at Whitby Goth Weekend in Yorkshire, England in 2007. To me, this image is somewhat more creative than the dominant image of "gothic" in my mind. (Paul Stevenson/Flickr/CC-A)

Starting next month, I’m taking a class titled “Gothic Fiction: Examples from Three Centuries.” The course is one of several perks I get for mentoring student teachers, and while I appreciate the stipend, I really like the courses. It will meet monthly during March, April and May, and I’ll post many of my writings here. This first writing is a response put to me by my instructors:

“What’s meant by the term ‘gothic’?”

I can’t think of anything I know less about than “gothic.” I know a little about a lot, and a lot about a little, but Ted don’t know diddley about gothic. What I do know are stereotypes. Dark, mascara-wearing, trenchcoat bedecked kids with moody attitudes. Obsessed with death and the dark side of things. Lots of notebook art — the kind that sort of scares you when you run into it, like a vampire perched over a grave crying with a machine gun in one hand and a box of Girl Scout cookies in the other. I’d call the counselors fast.

Vampires? There’s another thing I don’t know much about. My knowledge of vampires is limited to Count Chocula and Count von Count from Sesame Street. I saw The Lost Boys in the 80s, along with everyone else who would like to pretend they didn’t help bankroll the two Coreys. I’m vaguely aware that Dracula is based on someone named Vlad the Impaler, who I gather was a pretty disturbed and disturbing dude.

The count

"Now Ted, Gothic fiction isn't just about vampires." Okay, but I don't know that for certain right now. I'm just assuming that at some point my stereotypes will be disproven. Besides, I'm having fun right now.

Does gothic have anything to do with vampires? I don’t know for certain, but I’m on a roll. Let’s continue. How many vampire books can I name? Let’s count:

  1. Dracula. One vampire book.
  2. Interview With the Vampire. Two vampire books.
  3. Twilight. Three vampire books.

Not that I’ve read any of these, mind you. I’ve heard of them. I hear that Anne Rice has written a few books other than Interview with the Vampire, and know from experience that her fans are disturbingly obsessive about them and have very strong opinions about the film. They’ll probably be descending on me within minutes after I post this.

And then there’s Twilight.

How I, a high school English teacher who professes to be at least vaguely in tune with the reading interests of his students, has managed to avoid reading this book, I don’t know. That’s not to say that I don’t know something about it. I know there’s a character named Bella in it. What she does, I don’t know. But I do know that I was able to provoke some heated discussion among a group of students by asking them to comment on her. I got her name from my wife, who read all three books in the series.

I’m not sure she’s an impartial judge of the series, either. One night we were sitting in bed reading. She was reading the final book in the series. I was probably reading Volume 2 of The Last Lion for the tenth time. All of a sudden she busts out laughing.

“What’s the matter?” I ask.

She keeps laughing, finally garnering enough breath to say, “It’s just so ridiculous…”

So this did not inspire me to pick up the books.


Is this what it means to be gothic? Somehow I don't think so. (Disney)

What else do I know about gothic things? There’s gothic architecture, which of course makes me think of the talking gargoyles in Hunchback of Notre Dame. That’s not really fair to have gothic architecture, though. I’ve been in a few cathedrals. I know what a flying buttress is.

Have I missed any stereotypes? Is there anyone out there I haven’t offended? If so, I’m really sorry. I just don’t know enough about what it means to be gothic to finish the job.
I don’t mean to be rude. I don’t really bear any ill will against anything Gothic. Cathedrals are cool. So are books. I just don’t know much of anything about what “gothic” means except a bunch of half-baked observations which, I suspect, are all of the worst stereotypes about “gothic.”

But that, I suppose, was at least part of the purpose of this prompt.

So there you have it. Now that we’ve exposed my ignorance, let the learning begin.

Next prompt in this series: “What is a ghost?”

Update (6/1/10): “Brock Drennan” clued me into this video. Thanks!


15 thoughts on “What’s meant by the term “gothic”?: A rant in response

  1. But don’t you think you ought to link your name to your avatar so that people on whose blog you leave a comment can find you without googling.

    In case you don’t know how, on your dashboard, at the top to your left, there is “my account” and in there is “my profile” where the address of this blog should be registered as your “main web site”.

  2. Hi, Ted

    I quite enjoyed your post on Goth.
    Spending as much time as I have on WEbook.com (an online writer’s community which is at present, perhaps 53.4% teen) I’ve been made abundantly aware of Twilight and the effect the books have had on young minds.

    While I’m not really big on vampires and the horror genre in particular, I do think that anything that gets young people to read, and to WRITE has got to be a good thing… and believe me, the kids on WEbook are very into Vampires (not to mention darkness, death, and razor blades).

    Glad you stopped by UphillWriting.org today. It’s good to meet you.

    • Agreed, which is why I’m so excited about this course. I’m painfully aware that a high percentage of my “reading” students have devoured the Twilight series, and I can’t effectively converse with them about it. During the Harry Potter craze a few years ago, my knowledge of those texts gave me an “in” with a lot of kids — one I don’t have right now.

  3. Hi. I am a Goth, and not at all offended by anything that you have written.

    So don’t worry.

    The questions you have asked are not capable of simple explanation, as the word Gothic has a long and complex history. There’s not time for me to deliver a lecture here, so I’ll point you in a few directions.

    Gothic is a style of architecture, a type of literature and a modern subculture.

    As an architectural style it is characterised by pointed, Gothic arches. As found in many cathedrals and Victorian municipal buildings

    As a literary style, it began with Ann Radclyffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho” and Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto”, both written in the late 18th century. No vampires there, but dark, creepy ruined castles filled with supernatural occurrences. Other Gothic writers include Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley.

    As a modern subculture, it was give its name in 1984 or thereabouts to describe the bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, The Cure, and their black-clad, studded-belt wearing fans – of which I am one.

    Should you choose to Google or Wiki the above-mentioned names, you should find most of your questions answered.

    PS – Twilight sucks, read Bentley Little instead.

    • Thanks, MorganScorpion — and I’m glad you’re not offended. In preparing for this course, I’ve been very deliberate in not doing any additional preparatory research. I suspected from the start I’d find aspects of “Gothic” that I already knew something about. These three categories you mention: Frankenstein is a text I love and have taught numerous times, and Poe — gotta love him. And you’re bringing me some happy 80s memories with those bands you mention.

      My reading list includes The Monk, which I just ordered today, and short stories by Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I’ll be sure to write about them all.

  4. It’s been an age since I read The Monk – I remember feeling let down by it, as it wasn’t as shocking as I’d been led to believe. I guess to someone who had read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Matthew Lewis is a bit tame.

    Edith Wharton is one of my favourite writers; I do hope you enjoy reading her.

    Perhaps in time you’ll get to read Melmoth the Wanderer, by far my favourite of the early gothics.

    Best wishes

  5. I think that it’s a mistake to conflate the Goth subculture with the other two definitions.

    I also feel that “Twilight” is teen fiction, not Gothic in particular. Honestly, it may be emo enough, but the Goth subculture has always seemed to me to have an underlying self-awareness that simply isn’t present in what I’ve read of “Twilight.”

    Disclosure: I don’t like “Twilight” much. The best review I ever read of the series was:

    Does he like me? Does he like me? Does he like me? Does he like me? Does he like me? OMG! HE’S A VAMPIRE!!! Does he like me? Does he like me? Does he like me? HE LIKES ME!!!

    Alas, the link is lost in the mists of the intertubes. But there’s another perspective I like here. And you really should click the links, they’re hilarious.

    Lori, for her part, much prefers Chelsea Quinn Yarboro’s historical vampire fiction.

    • “Does he like me? Does he like me? Does he like me? Does he like me? Does he like me? OMG! HE’S A VAMPIRE!!! Does he like me? Does he like me? Does he like me? HE LIKES ME!!!”

      Too funny. I suspect that keeping an open mind as I prepare to read Twilight is going to be pretty difficult. Obviously people have very strong opinions about the books.

      Thanks for the link. I quickly looked though it but had to stop once I saw spoilers, etc. I’ll go back there later.

  6. You obviously would prefer a more solid definition and (more specifically) not one from a teenager such as myself (though I do fall into the category of gothic). I discovered this upon some intense web surfing perhaps it could help. http://www.gothic-charm-school.com While the site may be slightly difficult to navigate for the information you’re looking for, do try to view the video she uploaded that answers your question quite thoroughly.

    • Thanks for the direction on the video. I love it.

      You obviously would prefer a more solid definition and (more specifically) not one from a teenager such as myself

      Actually, at this point I’m much more interested in hearing from “teenagers” than adults. For my own purposes I find their replies more interesting. A few months ago I had a great sit-down with a group of my students to discuss the Twilight series of books. They had very strong feelings…not very positive ones. Something about sparkly vampires seemed to aggravate them… 🙂

      I still have to pull together my final thoughts on gothic from the class. It was very thought-provoking, and enlightening for a teacher like me not quite familiar with this material. Meanwhile, take a look at my other writings from the class if you like.

      • It would be very selfish for me to simply start naming characteristics of a goth as a definition. Each person is unique, just the rest of society, but we have all have something in common; taste in what would seem as depressing if not dark music and an ability to be open-minded. As people grow, they start to wonder about their life and how they should spend the remainder of it and they become accustomed to empathy for other people. They feel the pain that other people have endured or are enduring, the sadness behind every face, the shadow in every corner.
        This is prominent in a Goth’s eyes. You’ll find less people who believe in any religion from a gothic community than any other group of people aside from scientists. Maybe it’s because we think deeply and try to consider every angle of a subject, but have discovered that a constant factor is unhappiness. We try to understand what’s around us, but we simply can’t be told something and take it as fact. We have to analyze it; break it down into something we can understand… some kind of truth that we constantly seek within ourselves. We know we don’t have all the answers, but we know that no one else has them either.
        The music we listen to inspires us. The words ringing from within another’s soul bridge the gab to echo througout our entire being. It helps us focus and relax at the same time. We can block out the colors and sounds from the main society and finally listen to ourselves.
        We don’t understand why we should work thirty to forty years for the main progress of society, when we simply only live once. Scientists, researchers, the intellects of our time, all understand that this is it… this is your life and your chance to exist. If you’d like to spend it working towards a unified goal, being directed by the bigger guys to build something that they believe needs to be, well, cheers to you pal. We like to be ourselves, live this life our way, to our moral codes no matter how they differ from the main. We like to be happy, but we understand the need for sadness and the power and beauty in death. They are gone, but not taken for granted. Take Brave New World for example. It discusses the need for unhappiness, discomfort, pain. It’s all more important than any can imagine… Sorry if i’ve gotten off topic a wee bit, but I hope this will aid you with your goal.

  7. Minor typo, “just like the rest of society”. I had to post this anyways so I could be notified of new comments. Cheers and Good luck!

  8. I’m really confused.. You’re taking a course on Gothic Literature, and then talking about a subculture?
    if you want good Gothic Literature read some Flannery O’Connor, or William Faulkner..
    if you want to learn about the sub culture, watch the Voltaire interview on youtube.
    also.. Twilight has nothing to do with either – Goths do not glitter.

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